In Brief

Zeitgeist

On the ice front

Across the world, glaciers are on the retreat. But Mont Blanc is resisting. A study by France’s National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) shows that the little glacial ice-caps on the ‘summit of Europe’, and on the neighbouring Dôme du Goûter in the French Alps, are not (yet) suffering the impact of all the global warming observed during the past decade. More than 4200 metres up, temperatures are always below zero – except in exceptional heat waves like that of 2003. Data collected since 1993 show no variation in the mass of the two glaciers, measured by the speed of deformation at their base (under their own weight) and the rate of accumulation of snow in their upper part. The meteorological data recorded since 1923 by the Chamonix station also enable us to calculate the accumulation of snow during the 20th century, which proves to be almost constant. Analysis of old topographical maps also confirms this hypothesis.

This against-the-trend diagnosis is, however, something of a freak result in what is now an incessant flood of research studies confirming the retreat of glaciers across the world, from the huge fortress of the Himalayas (25° to 35° N) to the immense Arctic ice store formed by Greenland's continental ice cap. Today a range of solidly based studies prove that the surface of this ice cap has melted twice as fast over the past 25 years as was previously estimated. Among the latest data, researchers from the Grenoble Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics Laboratory and the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (BE) have also shown that, between 1979 and 2005, the exposed surface area of Greenland that melts on at least one day a year, has increased by 42%, with the average summer temperature increasing by 2.4°C. This phenomenon is more pronounced in the north of the country, and at above 1500 m.


Top

Fewer animal experiments?

Five new in vitro tests intended to replace animal experiments for toxicity checking of cosmetics and chemicals were validated in April by EVCAM (European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods), which is part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. EpiDerm© and EPISKIN© reproduce the properties of skin using human cells cultivated in vitro and are designed to test the skin irritability of certain products. BCOP (Bovine Corneal Opacity & Permeability) and ICE (Isolated Chicken Eye) track eye irritancy using tissue recovered in slaughterhouses. All four methods could potentially replace traditional tests on live rabbits. Finally, rLLNA (reduced Local Lymph Node Assay) should halve the number of mice used in skin allergy tests. These new technologies developed by European and US researchers have still to receive the green light from European regulatory authorities. A European directive is recommending a total ban on cosmetics testing on animals by 2009.

To find out more

Top

Topo-Iberia, networked geology

A hundred or so Spanish geologists and geophysicists specialising in geodesics and geotechnology have recently joined forces to set up the Topo-Iberia network to study the deep underground. For them, the study of geological processes is too often neglected, despite their very many “surface” effects - from changing geographical reliefs to triggering natural disasters to climate change. 80 seismic recorders are being set up at approximately 50 km intervals to form a grid covering the whole of Spain in a homogeneous, synchronised network. “We will be supplying the best models for the structure of the lithosphere based on natural seismic activity, the location of earthquakes and measuring movements of the Iberian peninsula,” explains project coordinator Francisco Gonzalez-Lodeiro from the University of Granada. “This will give us a significant database of reliable data on this “microcontinent”. This will also allow Topo-Iberia to join the big boys in its speciality area, and begin cooperating with similar groupings like TopoEurope, EuroArray and the American Earthscope programme.


Top

Zygomycetes for the environment

Whilst working on the ability of fungi to produce ethanol, researchers at the University of Borås (SE), led by Mohammad Taherzadeh, made two major ecological discoveries. Studying zygomycetes, they discovered that these produce large quantities of ethanol from waste including sulphite lye, a pollutant by-product of papermaking. On top of this, a new and particularly absorbent antibacterial material can be extracted from the processing residues and used to produce hygiene products, nappies and bandages. This material is interesting because it can be composted, producing biogas in place of the carbon dioxide released when incinerating bandages and nappies.

To find out more

Top

The sea and iron

The oceans are the principal tool our planet uses to pump excess carbon out of the atmosphere. This occurs physically, through the action of ocean currents and movements, and biologically by carbon being fixed in the corpses of dead organisms and other marine waste and falling naturally to the seabed. Right now, this biological pump is not functioning optimally and has slowed down in certain regions, in particular the South Seas, even though these waters are extremely rich in nutritional salts. Various scientific research projects have demonstrated the presence of iron deficiency in seaweed, to which climate geo-engineering companies have answered that the increase in atmospheric CO2 can be remedied by artificially adding iron to the ocean. Can it? Improbable, came the answer from Keops (KErguelen Ocean and Plateau compared Study), a combined venture by 16 European (FR, BE, NL) and Australian research laboratories. These studied the waters of the ocean shelf surrounding the Kerguelen Islands, which every year experience a very localised summer flowering of phytoplankton, as proved by satellite images. Researchers showed that this phenomenon is fed by a continuous and natural supply of iron, rising from the seabed to the surface waters. Compared with artificial fertilisations, it appears that the export of carbon towards the seabed is at least twice as large and obtained with smaller quantities of iron. Fertilisation efficiency (ratio between the quantity of carbon exported and the amount of iron added) is also at least ten times greater with natural iron. In other words, the biological path of the sea’s absorption of atmospheric carbon is much more sensitive to iron naturally provided by the water than to iron added artificially. The Keops research work is also opening new perspectives in palaeo-climatology and climate change research.


Top

Blocking metastases?

German and Portuguese scientists have opened a potential avenue for ending “cellular motility” (the spontaneous and independent faculty of movement of cells) which lies behind the propagation of cancerous metastases. They have shown that this motility may be linked to the aberrant activation of a molecule identified as an epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). They are also exploring how inhibiting such activation can allow cells with chaotic motility, which is specific to cancers, to return to normal behaviour. The results of this recent work are published in the University of Oxford’s Human Molecular Genetics journal.


Top

When solids breathe

Until now breathing, characterised by a reversible variation in volume, has always been associated with organic, living matter. Every time it inhales, the human lung increases in size by 40 %. Inorganic matter, on the other hand, is often associated with the idea of rigidity: it does not move, does not change Lavoisier (Yvelines, France) have discovered that hybrid matter (combining organic and inorganic matter) can also reversibly change shape. In particular they have discovered a new family of trivalent metallic dicarboxylates with impressive breathing capacities. When plunged into a liquid, their volume can increase by up to 300%. We at once start dreaming up futuristic applications of this phenomenon, for instance for capturing CO2 or storing hydrogen.


Top

ERA news

Green light for EIT

After nearly two years of wideranging debate the question is, do we need one? What form should it take? The European Summit held in June at the end of the German Presidency decided to create a new European Institute of Technology (EIT). This is the European Union’s answer to the challenge of the “virtuous knowledge triangle”, with its three sides of quality university education, excellence in research, and dynamic, innovative business companies. Combining these three components in a joint European institution should provide the critical mass that Europe needs – but does not yet have – for taking part in today’s major interdisciplinary advances in information technologies, bio- and nanotechnologies, energy and other fields across the world.

The EIT is a brand-new formula. Its outward form will be neither a super-campus somewhere in Europe nor a scattering of geographically concentrated “valleys”. Rather it will consist of well-structured, well-funded Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) in which universities, research institutes, public and private enterprises, financial institutes and other regional and local organisations will pool the best of their European human and material resources to jointly undertake high-visibility, cutting-edge innovation programmes. Now that the green light has been given, the first pilot KICs could be in place by 2010-2011.


Top

New “risk” window at EIB

Researchers and financiers share a taste for risk. But they approach it from very different angles. Venture capital has, it is true, narrowed the gap. This form of financing of specific high-tech companies, in vogue since the 1980s, has enabled many research-bred innovations to make it to commercial markets. But venture capital cannot finance every risk along the R&D “Richter Scale”. Certain high-uncertainty areas remain outside the normal financial circuits, even in this specialist market.

Last June, the Commission and the European Investment Bank sought to provide the missing link by signing a cooperation agreement creating a new risk-sharing financing facility (RSFF). With this instrument, which is part of the 7th Framework Programme, the Commission will part-guarantee financing by the EIB to support research-linked projects with “unguaranteed” results. € 1 billion will be available under the RSFF, which should have a snowball effect in unblocking further financing.

To find out more

Top

Technological initiatives, avanti…

Artemis, IMI, Clean Sky, and Eniac. The Commission has adopted its first four Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI), a new form of partnership aimed at further synchronising the efforts of industry, Member States and the Commission in vast areas of research that are vital to Europe’s future competitiveness and quality of life. Artemis, launched in May, sets out to develop ”embedded“ computer systems. IMI (Innovative Medicines Initiative), which started in the same month, seeks to relaunch European pharmaceutical research, large parts of which are relocating outside Europe. To these the European Summit held in Brussels in June added the Clean Sky JTI presented by the aerospace sector, and Eniac (European Nanoelectronics Initiative Advisory Council) in nanoelectronics.

To find out more

Top

First success for ERC

The science community has responded overwhelmingly to the European Research Council’s (ERC) first call for proposals. No fewer than 9 167 entries now have to be examined by the Council’s evaluation groups. All selection criteria relate solely to scientific quality, regardless of the researcher’s nationality or field. To increase the competitiveness of European infrastructures, each ERC-funded research project must be undertaken in cooperation with a host institution in Europe or an associate country.

Readers are reminded that the ERC was set up in 2006, with an allocation of € 7 billion under the 7th Framework Programme, to promote fundamental research in Europe. This first call for offers, which ended on 30 April, was directed at independent research by recent PhDs. In autumn 2007 a second call will be issued to established researchers.


Top

Understanding Proteins

In April 2007, Novo Nordisk Foundation, a private Danish organisation, handed over a cheque for € 80 million to the University of Copenhagen to fund a world class protein research centre. This investment, which made history in Denmark, should benefit all biomedical researchers, both Danes and other.

From 2008, a hundred or so scientists will begin looking more closely at human proteins and how they are involved in a range of diseases, in particular cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and obesity. For the dean of the University of Copenhagen’s Health Sciences faculty, these research opportunities are “a dream come true” and “an opportunity to discover and develop a new medicine”. Needless to say this work should also help the pharmaceuticals industry in producing innovative medicines.


Top

Robotics and medicine

Altacro is a walking robot. He is doubtless not the only one of his kind, but he imitates human movements particularly well. Altacro was designed specifically to help handicapped patients learn to walk again. He bears the signature of the Multibody Mechanics Group of the mechanical engineering department of the Free University of Brussels (VUB – BE) which, since the nineties, has been studying how to develop robots that can serve different areas of medicine. Its work covers a broad spectrum since one of its latest projects is Anty, a friendly and intelligent “robot dog” who will be able to communicate with children who have to spend long periods in hospital (to be launched in 2010).

An earlier article on this area, focusing on the MAIA (Mental Augmentation through Determination of Intended Action - www.maia-project.org/) project, was published in RTD info no 51 (December 2006).


Top

The sun as a water purifier

For the past decade, African populations have been drinking non-potable, bacteria-polluted river water after purifying it in the sun. The technology is simple: the water is poured into plastic bottles and exposed to the sun’s rays for four to six hours. No chlorine, no filter, no boiling, but a major reduction in cholera, dysentery and gastroenteritis.

As Dr Kevin McGuigan, who coordinates the Sodiswater project, explains, this is because the UV rays deactivate a large number of bacteria and viruses in the cells for one or two days only.

To apply this ingenious process to large quantities of water, researchers in southern Spain have developed a system that can purify 50 litres of water at a time in just 90 minutes. They are now seeking to demonstrate that this technology offers an alternative and very low-cost alternative purification method, especially for vulnerable populations in refugee camps, or when natural catastrophes and other emergencies strike.

This multidisciplinary, intercontinental project has received € 1.9 million of Union funding. Nine research centres are working on it in seven countries. The European researchers come from laboratories in Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. Assessment studies of the health effects are planned in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe. The Irish government is also undertaking a comparable study in Cambodia.

To find out more

Top

Which biotechnologies for what Europe?

In April 2007, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) of the Commission’s Joint Research Centre presented its Biotechnology for Europe Study, known more simply as Bio4EU. This analysis had been commissioned by the Union, at the request of the European Parliament, to update it on the status of advanced biotechnologies and genetic engineering (including GMOs) in the context of current European policies (Lisbon strategy, Agenda 21, sustainable development).

In 150 pages, Bio4EU paints a picture of the socio-economic and environmental impact of these new technologies and seeks to analyse their role in medicine and health and in industry (in particular agro-food). Its wide-ranging chapters review a range of issues in which “modern” biotechnologies play a vital part, including productivity, growth, energy consumption, the role of the private sector and patents, their impact on animal health and their contribution to sustainable development. “Everything”, it would appear, is affected by these new “magic solutions”, which today form an integral (and apparently essential) part of our economy. The study compares Europe's performances with those of the other parts of the world. The report can be downloaded from the site.


Top

IT and babyboomers

Babyboomers are nearing retirement age… The proportion of Europe’s citizens aged 65 and over will grow by 40% between 2010 and 2030. They will be ageing in a society of lifelong learning, for which Internet is almost a sine qua non. Seniors will need therefore to feel au fait and at ease with the many services available on the web. Whilst much is already available for older citizens, Internet’s functionalities often remain a mystery to the uninitiated. A little more user-friendliness would go a long way.

The Union is very much aware of this problem and its framework programmes offer major support for improving technologies for this market sector. To boost this effort, the European Commission has just adopted its Ageing well in the Information Society action plan. This will provide financial support to research and practical application work in ”IT for seniors“ undertaken on a joint basis between ”volunteer“ Member States. This plan uses an institutional form of shared financing – provided for in the Treaties (article 169), but curiously underused – which allows the Commission to support research initiatives set up by two or more countries. Apart from the benefit to seniors, will this action plan also kick-start the deployment of this dormant funding tool in the European Research Area?


Top

Stay plugged in…

Mobile phones, laptops, PDAs, GPS, iPods… Mobile technologies are advancing with giant strides, and we have learned to tame them. But don’t even the more media-savvy of us at times feel lost when confronted with the diversity and rapid development of mobile equipment? To solve this problem, the MUSIC (Self-adapting applications for Mobile Users In ubiquitous Computing environments) opensource platform is developing mobile applications to simplify life for us, in particular by automatically adapting our equipment to the constant developments, whilst keeping us on the technological cutting edge. This European research, which is part of the IST (Information Society Technologies) programme, brings together universities and industrialists from various sectors.


Top

Solar energy à la carte

What is Europe’s potential for producing photovoltaic solar energy? The use of photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity is of primary interest to southern regions. But the interest of this map lies also in the additional information it brings, in particular the amount of potential energy supplied in all neighbouring regions together. The map was produced by researchers using the PVGIS (Photovoltaic Geographical Information System) as part of the Solarec action initiated by the Renewable Energies unit of the Commission's Joint Research Centre.

To find out more

Top

Every species in a single click

Listing all existing species, knowing where and how they live, grow and interact. This is the objective of SpeciesBase, an international open source platform that combines the many biodiversity databases which exist across the world (see RTD info no 47). At the G8 meeting on biodiversity this April, experts agreed on rules for managing this mine of data, which has been set up to meet the needs of scientists and non-scientists alike.

To find out more

Top

Sustainable transport, two research projects

Last March, the Commission launched two research projects on sustainable transport. The first will examine the Lisbon-Kiev trans-European corridor and assess the relative importance of all forms of surface transport (sea, road, rail), their interaction with the regions they cross (customs, traffic jams, etc.) and their socio-economic and environmental impact. The seven countries involved are Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and the Ukraine.

The second project focuses on Lombardy, an Italian region of intense economic activity, where ozone levels are particularly critical. This time researchers will be looking for strategies to improve air quality.

To find out more

Top

Launching Net-Biome

Europe’s most remote regions (MRR) and European overseas territories have decided to launch a new initiative called Net-Biome to coordinate their research into safeguarding biodiversity. The seven MRR islands – Madeira, Azores, Canaries, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane and Réunion – are collaborating with other tropical island regions – the British Overseas Territories, the Netherlands Antilles, Polynesia and New Caledonia.

Harmonisation of activities and pooling of resources, knowledge and means should produce the first concrete results in four years’ time. This initiative could open the way to research into biodiversity in these “far-off” regions.

Net-Biome is one application of ERA-Net, a research coordination tool created under the Sixth Framework Programme.

To find out more

Top

“Visas” for Germany

Researcher mobility remains high on the political agenda as Germany follows Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia in transposing European legislation on scientific visas into national law. From now on foreign researchers, students and lecturers will have easier access to the country’s recognised universities and institutes. Procedures for obtaining a residence permit will be simplified and students who have just completed their studies will be able to accept a job whilst waiting for a proper opening in their speciality. This new policy can only increase Germany’s attractiveness for scientific research.

The October 2007 deadline for Member States to transpose this rule into their national law is fast approaching. Greece and France are already at the procedural stage.

To find out more

Top

Sino-French particles

France and China have just signed a convention setting up the France-China Particle Physics Laboratory (FCPPL) specialising in particle physics. This agreement, between the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) on the one hand and the French National Research Centre and Atomic Energy Centre on the other, is the fruit of years of collaboration between 250 researchers, engineers and students from the two countries. Back in 1988 a leading French particle physicist, Michel Davier, helped develop the BEPC collider in Beijing. Today French and Chinese researchers are working together at CERN on the high profile LHC (Large Hadron Collider). Every astrophysicist in the world is impatiently awaiting its roll-out, planned for May 2008. Gamma ray bursts are another target of the Sino-French specialists who are collaborating on the SVOM space experiment. The convention defines a framework for setting up joint management and a joint steering committee. This new international laboratory will of course facilitate exchanges of researchers between the two countries’ research centres.

To find out more

Top

Vital new ICT products

CeBIT, the world’s leading information and communication technology fair, held in Hannover (DE), played host to the European ICT Prize awards ceremony. Three Grand Prize Winners each collected a cheque for € 200 000. Thanks to prize winner Telepo (SE), companies can access fixed-line telephony services anywhere, anytime, with full security. For digital libraries, Teventus (AT)’s innovative Scan Robot can digitise 40 pages per minute with automatic page turning in both directions. Transitive (UK) has launched its Quick Transit software translation program which removes the need to reprogramme source and binary codes. 17 other prizes (€ 5 000 each) went to a wide range of innovations like automated tsunami warning systems, picked up by mobile phone, or a brain-computer interface that “translates” thoughts into electronic control signals.

To find out more

Top

Science within arm’s reach

Furnace, the magician

The UK firm The Foundry, in partnership with the Sigmedia laboratory at Trinity College, Dublin, has developed innovative software using advanced image processing algorithms. Its field of application is film and video. By tracking every pixel, this visual effects tool erases cables to show actors and stuntmen flying through the air, adds objects to images, reduces grain and generally improves or preserves picture quality. Casino Royal, The Da Vinci Code, Lord of the Rings, and the inevitable returns of Batman, King Kong and Superman all used Furnace. This “made in Europe” innovation has just been awarded a Scientific and Engineering Award® from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences®.

To find out more

Top

Logging on to Hubble

Since the 1990s, the Hubble space telescope has been sending back daily images of the cosmos of a kind impossible to capture by even the most powerful terrestrial telescopes. These have helped scientists to determine the age and size of the universe, refine the theory of its expansion, and formulate new hypotheses on the formation of galaxies. But the Hubble’s achievements warrant recognition by a much wider public than researchers alone. Hence the launch of its own website, updated daily. Features include five video episodes relating its epic adventures, which can be downloaded free of charge (Hubblecast, produced by the Hubble team at the ESA). The site has a smiling host, one Dr J., alias Joe Liske, a German astronaut who tells of Hubble’s encounters with the galaxies and stars, the enigmas of the black holes and the explosion of stars, all events captured by the Hubble at a height of 600 km above the Earth. In addition to the podcasts, the very user-friendly Hubble site offers many documents designed to serve as teaching aids for children.


Top

Nemo: the vessel and its contents

Nemo is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The name of the Amsterdam Science Centre is in fact a contraction of New Metropolis, but it also evokes the captain in Jules Verne’s 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea; the little boy created by Winsor McCay (Little Nemo who, every night, travelled in his dreams to Slumberland); and even the alias adopted by Ulysses when he trapped the cyclops Polyphemus. All of which lends many meanings to a word that in Latin means nobody.

More concretely, every year this renowned science centre, housed in a vast five-storey building, attracts some 325 000 visitors to its journeys of discovery, experiments, exhibitions, films, workshops, demonstrations, interactive spaces and presentations adapted to all ages. At the Wonder Lab, for example, visitors can transform polluted water into drinking water, see the face they will be wearing in 30 years’ time, and understand how skyscrapers can absorb shocks without collapsing. Against the backdrop of a magazine decor, adolescents are invited to “test” the sensations about which they can put their questions, such as the effects of alcohol, erogenous zones, and the secret work of hormones.

In fine weather, visitors are welcomed on a huge sloping terrace (the piazza) where they can discover that there is more to Nemo than its contents. The building, designed by maestro architect Renzo Piano, is worth a visit in itself. Located at the heart of the Amsterdam port area, surrounded by boats, the museum resembles a bizarre ferry of surprising proportions resting on top of the IJ car tunnel. An inspired native of Genoa, Piano – who turns 70 this year – has displayed his talent all over the world, but principally in Europe, where his works include the Beaubourg (Paris), renovation of the Postdamer Platz (Berlin) and the Paul Klee museum (Bern). Amsterdam and science are most certainly worthy of his signature.

To find out more

Top

Munich – the photo and the atom

Munich’s Deutsches Museumhas the knack of presenting technologies by analysing the mechanisms at work and placing them in context. The latest of these permanent exhibitions, Photo + Film, traces the history of photo and film from the daguerreotype to the DVD. An impressive variety of objects are displayed in almost 600 m2 of floor space, including the pigeon photographer launched into flight in the early years of the 20th century to bring back panoramic pictures. The exhibition also looks at concepts such as time, space and colour, the significance of photography and film – as souvenir, testimony, work of art, etc. – and the digital technologies behind today’s consumer products.

Another temporary exhibition (until 7 October) shows the different ways of revealing the invisible. Images of the atom presents the unfolding history of the atom, from its discovery by Becquerel in 1896 and the research carried out by the Curie couple to nuclear weapons, medical applications and nanotechnologies. The issues raised by the atom in society at large over past decades are also considered, including how its image and perceptions of it have changed over time, sometimes very surprisingly. Despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, nuclear tests were carried out monthly between 1951 and 1963 in the desert not far from Las Vegas. Tourists gathered to watch the spectacle from a distance, admiring the gathering mushroom clouds, attracted to the event by the Miss Atomic Bomb advertising campaign. At the time there was almost complete ignorance of the dangers of radioactive fallout.

To find out more

Top

Astronomy without borders

Supported by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and ESA, SOS (Space Observatories in School) was set up to make young people more aware of opportunities to study the fundamental sciences, especially those related to the universe. One of the tools is the telescope. “Few people know that many space research projects are carried out largely by Europe. Although there are excellent opportunities for young people to fuel their interest in these fields on the Internet, actually handling instruments is also very important,” stresses Michael Cripps, head of the science department at the Neatherd High Schoolin Dereham (UK), an SOS member. This is why the organisation loans equipment to schools, makes scientific presentations, and is sometimes active on other continents. A recent project was a joint action with schools in South Africa, in partnership with the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of the Western Cape. “A group of our young people visited African schools in the summer of 2005. They worked with their students and their teachers and developed high quality programmes for dissemination through school networks One positive result of this was the way images and other resources from the project website were used by other organisations around the world. This demonstrates how many people of different origins and cultures can share a common language to understand the surprising workings of the universe.”

SOS is a mine of information for anyone interested in the sciences of the cosmos, who may be thinking of making it their career, or who would like to know more through dialogue with young researchers who are only too pleased at the chance to communicate.


Top

European research in the field

Are you a science teacher or member of an organisation seeking to make young people more aware of European research? The EU supports many projects on vital subjects of contemporary interest, such as the environment, health, ethics, diet, new technologies, space and the role of science in society. Don’t hesitate to contact the Research DG’s Communication Unit to organise your action (a visit behind the scenes at the European Commission, meetings and debates in your classroom or at your organisation with a Commission representative, participation at scientific events, visits to a centre of excellence), or to receive multimedia teaching material on subjects that interest you.

To find out more

Top

Teaching Corner

The ABC of rising water levels

Ask people why sea levels are rising and the climate is changing and most of them will say because ice is melting. But in fact it is the dilation (expansion) of water, caused by the heating of the sea, that is the primary cause of rising sea levels. To illustrate this phenomenon very simply, take a glass tube, plunge it in a recipient of cold water and heat the lot: the water level in the tube will rise.

But why such a fuss, one might ask, about melting ice? This is a phenomenon that has taken place every summer for centuries. Here, we must first distinguish between pack ice and ice caps. Pack ice is frozen sea water, whilst an ice cap is a layer of ice formed on top of a land mass. The melting of pack ice does not directly cause water to rise. To prove it, take a soup dish and build a little mound of clay in the centre. Fill it with water, making sure that part of the clay is above water. Add a few ice blocks to the water before marking the water level on the clay. What happens? The ice cubes melt, but the water level remains unchanged. According to Archimedes’ principle, the floating ice cubes already displace a volume of water equivalent to that of the water they become on melting. However, today’s warming is reducing the total area of the pack ice. This is the cause for concern: pack ice tends to reflect solar radiation like a mirror, whilst sea water, with its dark colour, tends to absorb it. This process, referred to as changing the albedo, heats and dilates the water and causes the sea level to rise.

A final experiment: place an ice cube on a little mound of clay in the same soup dish and wait for it to melt. This time the water level rises. This ice cube is acting like a polar or glacial ice-cap. The melted water mixes with the sea water and increases the total water volume. In a natural climate ecosystem, ice caps melt down to a certain extent in summer, but the normal water and temperature cycle self-regulates around a point of balance, keeping the water mass more or less constant. The core problem of global warming is the much faster melting, which throws the cycle out of balance.


Top

Young Researchers

Stéphane, aged 34, cosmologist

I will admit that my childhood fascination with Star Wars was largely responsible for my vocation as a cosmologist. Inter-galactic travel and gaining mastery of the dark side of energy fired my imagination. All this made me want to study the universe and took me from Liège (Belgium), where I did my master’s, to London, where I am currently working as a post-doc with a Marie Curie fellowship from the European Commission. I would have liked to study worm-holes, these paths across space and time which can link one galaxy to another, but the need to select an in-vogue subject in order to obtain a fellowship led me to dark energy. I am not unhappy at this, even if I find the subject at times lacks originality. Fortunately, three years ago I also took up scientific journalism. It’s a real breath of fresh air to be able to write instead of calculating, opening the mind to a wide range of subjects. There is nothing like writing for non-specialists to really come to grips with a subject.

My post-doc ends in a few weeks’ time. London has been a marvellous experience. So much freedom, so many people to meet, so much to learn. I would have liked to have continued in research, but permanent academic posts in cosmology and in astrophysics more generally are few and far between. In England, academic posts are rare, but a theoretical physicist can hope to find work in the private sector where a doctorate and a post-doc are seen as proof of your ability to learn and to adapt to new subjects and environments. In France, academic positions are also rare, and the recruitment system means that your chances of obtaining one are either one or zero depending on whether or not you have someone in the system supporting you. In the private sector, most French companies view someone with a doctorate or post-doctoral studies as work-shy; quite the opposite of England. And mentalities are not going to change in a hurry.

I’m not so sad at leaving research. I am now 34. I could have gone looking for another post-doc, but I have come across too many people worn out by this system, trapped in the loneliness which is the result of instability. I am therefore leaving the system before “going cold”. If one day I have children and they tell me they want to do research, I would be happy for them to go and study in England and worried if they decided to remain in France.

Stéphane Fay


Top